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Free Will
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Roman Jakobson

Roman Jakobson was a literary theorist and critic, greatly influenced by Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of structuralism and of semiology, the connection between signs as signifiers and the signified concepts. Before Saussure, linguistics was the historical ("diachronic") study of language, primarily grammars, over time. Structuralism looks to the "synchronic" study of structure alone to discover the functions of language.

Jakobson extended linguistics beyond syntax, semantics, and morphology, with a careful analysis of the sounds of language, which often convey a great deal of meaning beyond the text. He extended his new critical tools beyond his new phonology to syntax and morphology, and even semantics.

He studied communications theory (Claude Shannon), cybernetics (Norbert Wiener), and the semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce, using them all to study poetry, music, and films (especially the emergence of sound in films).

Jakobson's influential essay on linguistics and poetics distinguished six communication functions, each associated with a dimension or factor of the communication process. With two diagrams similar to Claude Shannon's sender-message-receiver diagram in the theory of the communication of information, Jakobson presented his theory of the poetic function of language:

Language must be investigated in all the variety of its functions. Before discussing the poetic function we must define its place among the other functions of language. An outline of these functions demands a concise survey of the constitutive factors in any speech event, in any act of verbal communication. The ADDRESSER sends a MESSAGE to the ADDRESSEE. To be operative the message requires a CONTEXT referred to (the "referent" in another, somewhat ambiguous, nomenclature), graspable by the addressee, and either verbal or capable of being verbalized; a CODE fully, or at least partially, common to the addresser and addressee (or in other words, to the encoder and decoder of the message); and, finally, a CONTACT, a physical channel and psychological connection between the addresser and the addressee, enabling both of them to enter and stay in communication. All these factors inalienably involved in verbal communication may be schematized as follows :

Each of these six factors determines a different function of language. Although we distinguish six basic aspects of language, we could, however, hardly find verbal messages that would fulfill only one function. The diversity lies not in a monopoly of some one of these several functions but in a different hierarchical orders of functions. The verbal structure of a message depends primarily on the predominant function. But even though a set (Einstellung) toward the referent, an orientation toward the context — briefly, the so-called REFERENTIAL, "denotative," "cognitive" function — is the leading task of numerous messages, the accessory participation of the other functions in such messages must be taken into account by the observant linguist.

The so-called EMOTIVE or "expressive" function, focused on the addresser, aims at a direct expression of the speaker's attitude toward what he is speaking about. It tends to produce an impression of a certain emotion, whether true or feigned...

Orientation toward the addressee, the CONATIVE function, finds its purest grammatical expression in the vocative and imperative, which syntactically, morphologically, and often even phonemically deviate from other nominal and verbal categories.

There are messages primarily serving to establish, to prolong, or to discontinue communication, to check whether the channel works ("Hello, do you hear me?"), to attract the attention of the interlocutor or to confirm his continued attention ("Are you listening?" or in Shakespearean diction, "Lend me your ears!" — and on the other end of the wire "Um-hum!"). This set for contact, or in Malinowski's terms PHATIC function, may be displayed by a profuse exchange of ritualized formulas, by entire dialogues with the mere purport of prolonging communication. Dorothy Parker caught eloquent examples: "'Well!' the young man said. 'Well!' she said. 'Well, here we are' he said. 'Here we are' she said, 'Aren't we?' 'I should say we were' he said, 'Eeyop! Here we are.' 'Well!' she said. 'Well!' he said, 'well.' " The endeavor to start and sustain communication is typical of talking birds; thus the phatic function of language is the only one they share with human beings. It is also the first verbal function acquired by infants; they are prone to communicate before being able to send or receive informative communication. A distinction has been made in modern logic between two levels of language: "object language" speaking of objects and "metalanguage" speaking of language. But metalanguage is not only a necessary scientific tool utilized by logicians and linguists; it plays also an important role in our everyday language... Whenever the addresser and/or the addressee need to check up whether they use the same code, speech is focused on the code: it performs a METALINGUAL (i.e., glossing) function. "I don't follow you — what do you mean?"

Any process of language learning, in particular child acquisition of the mother tongue, makes wide use of such metalingual operations; and aphasia may often be defined as a loss of ability for metalingual operations. I have brought up all the six factors involved in verbal communication except the message itself. The set (Einstellung) toward the message as such, focus on the message for its own sake, is the POETIC function of language. This function cannot be productively studied out of touch with the general problems of language, and, on the other hand, the scrutiny of language requires a thorough consideration of its poetic function. Any attempt to reduce the sphere of the poetic function to poetry or to confine poetry to the poetic function would be a delusive oversimplification. The poetic function is not the sole function of verbal art but only its dominant, determining function, whereas in all other verbal activities it acts as a subsidiary, accessory constituent. This function, by promoting the palpability of signs, deepens the fundamental dichotomy of signs and objects. Hence, when dealing with the poetic function, linguistics cannot limit itself to the field of poetry...

As I said, the linguistic study of the poetic function must overstep the limits of poetry, and, on the other hand, the linguistic scrutiny of poetry cannot limit itself to the poetic function. The particularities of diverse poetic genres imply a differently ranked participation of the other verbal functions along with the dominant poetic function. Epic poetry, focused on the third person, strongly involves the referential function of language; the lyric, oriented toward the first person, is intimately linked with the emotive function; poetry of the second person is imbued with the conative function and is either supplicatory or exhortative, depending on whether the first person is subordinated to the second one or the second to the first. Now that our cursory description of the six basic functions of verbal communication is more or less complete, we may complement our scheme of the fundamental factors with a corresponding scheme of the functions :

What is the empirical linguistic criterion of the poetic function? In particular, what is the indispensable feature inherent in any piece of poetry? To answer this question we must recall the two basic modes of arrangement used in verbal behavior, selection and combination. If "child" is the topic of the message, the speaker selects one among the extant, more or less similar nouns like child, kid, youngster, tot, all of them equivalent in a certain respect, and then, to comment on this topic, he may select one of the semantically cognate verbs — sleeps, dozes, nods, naps. Both chosen words combine in the speech chain. The selection is produced on the basis of equivalence, similarity and dissimilarity, synonymy and antonymy, while the combination, the build-up of the sequence, is based on contiguity. The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination. Equivalence is promoted to the constitutive device of the sequence. In poetry one syllable is equalized with any other syllable of the same sequence; word stress is assumed to equal word stress, as unstress equals unstress; prosodic long is matched with long, and short with short; word boundary equals word boundary, no boundary equals no boundary; syntactic pause equals syntactic pause, no pause equals no pause. Syllables are converted into units of measure, and so are morae or stresses

We can combine Jakobson's two schemas into a single diagram

Context was perhaps Jakobson's most important addition to semiotics. Adding context gives us the difference between semantics (the standard dictionary meaning of a word according to the normal "rules" of the language) versus pragmatics, the meaning that may be intended by the sender, or should be inferred by the receiver/interpreter because of the current situation. Jakobson calls this contextual information "denotative," "cognitive," "referential," the "leading task" of a message. Context-dependence alters the "meaning" to suit the purpose of a communication.


  1. referential (: the denotative or connotative "aboutness," contextual information, the "third person," someone or something the message is about)
  2. aesthetic/poetic (: information )
  3. emotive (: the addressee's self-expression, attitude, intention, first person)
  4. conative (: vocative or imperative addressing of receiver, second person)
  5. phatic (: no information, checking channel working, are you still there?)
  6. metalingual (: checking code working, agreement on the meanings of words)

Jakobson's famous but mysterious dictum "the poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection to the axis of combination" presages the fall of Saussure's synchronic, time-independent structuralism to the post-structuralist and post-modernist diachronic view, notably Jacques Derrida's "différance" whose meaning of deferral can only be seen and not heard, to displace the Platonic privileging of voice over text.

Derrida showed that meaning is deferred, disseminated, that Saussure's claim that meaning is "différence" is not the whole story. And Roland Barthes showed the dyadic Saussurean s/S becomes the "circle of signifiers" s/Z if one is trapped in Jakobson's "selection axis" of looking up words in a dictionary of dead (non-evolving) languages.

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